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MIKE JACOBS: Five stories that'll command N.D.'s attention in 2016

One of the surprises of retirement is that it provides the opportunity to look ahead. In workaday life, I found myself imagining what tomorrow's newspaper would look like, or perhaps what the weekend's lead story might be. But there was rarely th...

Mike Jacobs
Herald Publisher Mike Jacobs

One of the surprises of retirement is that it provides the opportunity to look ahead.

In workaday life, I found myself imagining what tomorrow's newspaper would look like, or perhaps what the weekend's lead story might be. But there was rarely the leisure to think about what the next week might bring, or the next month - let alone the next year.

Not so as a retiree.

Since it is no longer my responsibility to determine how the next payroll will be met or what tomorrow's front page will look like, I am free to imagine how the future might unfold.

On the stage that interests me especially, and you readers, too, I suppose, there is an even handful of significant stories. That is, five. Exactly.

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The stage for me is North Dakota, a political culture that I find endlessly interesting, perhaps because it is often so very subtle.

And this despite the fact that issues are often so very obvious.

But events don't always turn out as expected.

Therein lies opportunity for journalists, as every one of us recognizes. The unique privilege of our profession is to observe, inquire and report what we see happening in the wide, wonderful and - sometimes - wild world of politics.

Of course, it is always possible to be wrong. It's a risk that everyone in the business takes.

Given all of that, I'm fairly confident in outlining the five stories that will command our attention in North Dakota in the 11 months between now and the general election. Here they are, arranged essentially in the order in which they will unfold.

1. Ed Schafer becomes interim president of UND.

The former governor's term begins Jan. 15. It will run, if everything goes according to script, until July 1, by which time there should be a president-designate.

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Schafer tripped a bit in his appearance on campus last week. He said he thought names of potential successors should be kept secret until they become finalists. This is pretty much a non-starter in North Dakota politics. Commitment to openness is perhaps even more deeply entrenched in the state than gun rights - because it appeals to both edges of the political spectrum as well as to the state's media outlets.

Coverage of candidates will doubtless be intense.

2. The gubernatorial campaign.

Already, the run-up to choosing a new governor has seen unusual twists and attracted unusual attention. This isn't likely to change.

There's unusual interest in legislative races, too. One district - District 10, in the state's northeastern corner - has four Republican contenders for an open state Senate seat.

3. How about city elections?

Voters in Grand Forks face a fascinating mayoral campaign. Libertarian Terry Bjerke has said he'll run against Mike Brown, who is at least nominally a Republican. Brown endorsed Republican statewide candidates in 2014.

Grand Forks voters have a plateful of issues in their table. Longevity might work against Brown. He's been mayor since the flood.

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4. And what about Dean Bresciani?

He's the president of North Dakota State University. His contract runs out on June 30.

As it happens, this occurs at just the time when North Dakotans wish to make a decision about the nature of their colleges and universities. Should there be a system answerable to a chancellor (and ultimately to the Legislature)?

Or should presidents chart courses for the institutions they've been charged with?

This may be the most unfathomably subtle of questions facing North Dakota.

Bresciani has pressed for the latter course of greater freedom for individual institutions, and this has put him at odds with the system office and many legislators. In a kind of "piling on," a chorus of criticism has appeared in newspapers and online blogs in the last fortnight.

It could be that Bresciani's contract won't be renewed.

5. Finally, what will happen with the price of oil?

And what will that mean for North Dakota?

North Dakota has billions in reserve funds, and so the state remains rich - so rich that it is the envy of every other state.

Will wealth create misers? Or will it embolden visionaries who look beyond the weekend to the opportunities beyond?

That's the question that North Dakota will confront. The issue will likely unfold slowly, quietly, like a morning fog moving along the Red River Valley.

But it is the great question of our future.

Jacobs is retired as editor and publisher of the Herald. You can reach him at mjacobs@gfherald.com .

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